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John Calvin’s Views on Worship

Category Articles
Date July 14, 2003

The great danger the church faces today is the separation of our theology from our practice or the viewing of the Bible as somehow separate from theology

by Dr Robert Godfrey

In Taylors, South Carolina on March 11, 2OO3, at the Greenville Seminary Conference on Worship, Robert Godfrey, President of Westminster Theological Seminary in California, discussed John Calvin’s views on worship. Dr. Godfrey, who is also a church history professor as well as a minister in the United Reformed Churches of North America, began by reading Psalm 2 and by addressing common misapprehensions regarding Calvin. People think of him, stated Dr. Godfrey, as a "joyless killjoy, ruining people’s lives in Geneva." People have had this sort of negative reaction to Calvin since the l6th century when, ‘His enemies circulated the rumour that his wife had died of boredom"

Nearly as many misapprehensions abound about Calvin among Calvinists because we think of him as more of a theologian than as a pastor. We must not, Dr. Godfrey said, divorce Calvin the theologian from Calvin the pastor, one concerned not only with the truth but with the application and ministration of that truth.

The great danger the church faces today is the separation of our theology from our practice or the viewing of the Bible as somehow separate from theology. Calvin believed that there was no theology that did not come out of the Bible, but that out of the Bible came a theology of coherence. It is distressing, President Godfrey said, when people dismiss the theology of the Reformation as being not adequately Biblical. Concerned with being "mean spirited" in his reply, Godfrey responded that most people today who would make such a charge do not know one tenth as much about the Bible as John Calvin or Martin Luther did.

Calvin did not separate his theology from the Bible or from his pastoring. He was an extraordinary preacher, a devoted pastor, a catechist who wrote his own catechism, a visitor of the sick, a counsellor, and one deeply concerned about missions, ecumenism, church polity, and church discipline.

He was, according to the seminary president, a pastor in every area of life, and he was a pastor in the matter of the careful thought he gave to worship.

In his treatise, "On the Necessity of Reforming the Church," a document to be presented by the leaders of the Protestant movement to the Emperor Charles V, Calvin wrote.

"If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly; the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained."

The speaker stated that Calvin’s ranking worship as first in importance over salvation is due to one very important fact, namely that salvation is a means to an end, with worship being the end itself: We are saved, Dr. Godfrey said to worship God, now and eternally, with our public worship being a foretaste of the heavenly worship that awaits us. So, worship was not peripheral to John Calvin but fundamental.

In Calvin’s reply to Cardinal Sadoleto, one of the brilliant defences of the Reformation, Calvin penned these words: "There is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God." Calvin took worship very seriously. He wrote, "Let us know and be fully persuaded, that wherever the faithful, who worship him purely and in due form, according to the appointment of his word, are assembled together to engage in the solemn acts of religious worship, he is graciously present, and presides in the midst of them."

This, Dr. Godfrey said, is what has been lost in our worship due largely to the Revivalist tradition – the fact that worship is not primarily about getting people saved or about instructing people but about meeting with God. He stated he believes that people’s attraction to more liturgical churches is that in such churches it is often clear the people have come to meet with God, and too often in our Evangelical churches we have lost that sense of reverent anticipation in worship.

"Meeting with God" is perhaps the best brief definition of worship, and it is something Calvin understood. Calvin felt as a result that worship must be structured according to God’s word. Although the phrase "Regulative Principle" does not appear in Calvin’s writings, the idea is pervasive. Those who suggest that the Puritans were less open in their ideas of worship than Calvin can suggest such only, it seems to Dr. Godfrey, if they have not read Calvin who said:

"I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God."

Most people think, Dr. Godfrey stated, that if what they do in worship is sincere, God will be pleased. This is not true. It doesn’t matter how sincere you are. If you’re wrong, you’re still wrong. Again, according to Calvin:

"But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice.’ ‘In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,’ (1 Sam. xv. 22; Matth. xv 9). Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere "will worship" is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate."

"That," said the church history professor, "is as narrow-minded as any Puritan ever was." Calvin believed we were by nature idolaters. We see in the first commandment that we are not free to worship other gods. The second commandment also relates to the problem of idolatry and warns us against worship of the true God in a false way. When Israel built the golden calf, it was meant to be a representation of Yahweh, not another god.

According to Calvin, "Experience teaches us how fertile is the field of falsehood in the human mind and the smallest grains when sown there will grow to yield an immense harvest."

The fact that Calvin believed human hearts to be factories of idols explains why Calvin thought it so necessary to be so careful about our worship. Dr. Godfrey stated that because we are so prone to corruption in our worship, we are desperately in need of a full revelation from God about how we are to worship, and Calvin believed we have been given such an exhaustive revelation. He saw that too often, we want to please ourselves rather than please God in our worship. Calvin wrote, "Nor can it be doubted but that, under the pretence of holy zeal, superstitious men give way to the indulgences of the flesh; and Satan baits his fictitious modes of worship with such attractions, that they are willingly and eagerly caught hold of and obstinately retained."

Calvin says as well that God is so far unlike us that those things that please us most are loathsome and nauseating to God, that the more something delights human nature, the more it ought to be suspected among believers.

The professor pointed out that the Medieval church had seen itself as zealous in the worship of God and had marshalled all their artistic talents for the worship of God. It seemed to that church that one could not feel closer to God than one did in their magnificent cathedrals. But, such human invention did not express in a faithful, way what God has revealed about how He desires to be worshipped. Calvin purified the cathedral church in Geneva, taking out all images and religious symbols. The Bible was the most important source of influence for Calvin, but being a truly catholic Christian, he also studied care fully the writings of the ancient fathers of the church to test his own Biblical interpretation. He concluded that pure worship contained two parts: The liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the upper room.

Regarding the Lord’s Supper, Calvin concluded that it should be administered weekly. Believing that the Lord’s Supper is a summary of the Gospel, he believed there was an appropriateness that every sermon should end with the Gospel by the partaking of the Lord’s Supper. True saving faith comes by the preaching of the Gospel, and that Gospel is confirmed to us by the Sacraments.

Regarding the liturgy of the Word, God, said the URCNA minister, comes to meet with us in our worship, and the function of ministers is to speak God’s Word to the people of God. That is why a minister has no right ever in a sermon to speak his opinions. The people of God should not be subjected to a minister’s personal opinions on the Sabbath day from the pulpit, as he is there, not to speak his personal opinions but to administer the means of God’s grace to God’s people.

Several principles inform Calvin’s approach to worship.

1] First is the centrality of the Word. Reformed worship, though accused of being too intellectualistic, is in fact God’s idea. God gave us a Word to study. The suggestion that we are no longer meant to be careful in our direction and instruction for worship is often summarized that "There is no book of Leviticus in the New Testament." Godfrey said there is indeed a book of Leviticus in the New Testament, and its Acts 2:42. The difference between Old Covenant worship and New Covenant worship is not that one is rigidly instructed and the other is free. It is rather that the old is complex, and the new is simple. It is preaching and prayer and fellowship and sacraments.

Don’t we, though, need more emotion in our worship? When the Bible informs our worship, it does inform our minds, but it calls upon our hearts to be engaged as well.

2] The second basic principle is that of simplicity. This meant for Calvin the absence of distractions such as elaborate decoration and rites of human invention. Calvin was opposed to showiness in worship. It should be rather a focusing on God in simplicity.

3] The third principle is that we ascend spiritually when we meet with our God. Part of the reason the Reformed wanted simple places of worship was to prevent our thinking of them as temples and thus becoming unduly attached to the place in which we worship. Calvin, in the Reformed tradition, knew that the real place in which we worship is Heaven. We see this Heavenly Jerusalem not with our eyes but by faith, and it is to this Zion that we lift up our hearts to meet with God in worship. We don’t recreate a temple here on earth, because our privilege as children of the New Covenant is to worship in the Heavenly temple with Christ.

4] Fourthly, Calvin was very concerned about reverence. Dr. Godfrey quoted from Psalm 2, "Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling"; and then questioned whether or not contemporary worship, in which there is an emphasis on rejoicing, there is also trembling to accompany the rejoicing. Joy can’t trump reverence, he said. Neither, of course, can reverence trump joy, but real joy is not ‘just goofiness" or feeling good. There is no tension at all between real joy and reverence. Calvin wrote, "Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law," and, "we ought to note this fact even more diligently: all men have a vague veneration for God, but very few really reverence him; and wherever there is great ostentation in ceremonies, sincerity of heart is rare indeed."

Calvin believed that our emotions ought to be engaged in worship and that we were created to be emotional beings. But he also believed that we must be very careful with our emotions due to our fallenness.

According to the lecturer, many people today seem to think that our emotions are to be depended on as a totally reliable guide to genuineness and to action. Forms of 19th century Revivalism carried too much free reign emotionalism.

Calvin’s recognition of the part emotions play in worship caused him to be very concerned about worship music. He understood that music is one of the chief ways by which we give expression to our emotions in worship. He thought about it very carefully due to knowing it was powerful and so had the potential to be either advantageous or pernicious. As a consequence, he believed music of the church needed careful regulation. Calvin, in following what he thought was the teaching of the ancient church, practised exclusive Psalmody and eliminated musical instruments in the church. He thought the church should no more retain musical instruments than that it should retain incense and sacrifice. For Calvin, the most important thing about music was that we should have the right words to sing to God supported by melodies that can appropriately carry the weight of the subject. There must be a correspondence between what we are singing and how we are singing it.

Calvin was deeply concerned about the heart in worship. While sincerity does not justify practice, correct practice doesn’t count much with God if it’s not coming from a sincere heart. We should, Dr. Godfrey said, meditate on Psalm 50 to be careful about more than just the externals of worship. We must be those who come to meet with God, to hear the Gospel, to praise and pray and be built up in the faith.

Calvin was a wonderful pastor, and it is his pastoral ministry in its integration of theology and practice that we need to ponder as Reformed people to help lead us in new paths of faithfulness.

Presbyterian and Reformed News, January-March 2003

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